Chicago Cubs: Joe Maddon and managerial ethics

MILWAUKEE, WI - JULY 30: Wade Davis
MILWAUKEE, WI - JULY 30: Wade Davis /

How hard should a manager push a reliever in the quest to win an elimination game in the postseason?

When Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon brought closer Wade Davis into the seventh inning of Game 5 of the NLDS on Thursday night, I understood the decision. The Cubs led 9-7 and the Nationals had their four, five, and six hitters due up with two outs and runners on first-and-second. These are guys you need to get in a high leverage situation. Davis struck out Zimmerman.

Davis wasn’t as sharp in the eighth. He walked the first two batters and it was fair to wonder how much longer he’d go in the game. The Cubs still needed to get six more outs and he had pitched twice in the previous three days and isn’t known for his durability. His longest outing during the regular season was a 34-pitch effort on May 24. He pitched more than one inning just three times in 59 appearances. He’s never had a save in which he got more than three outs.

You also have to consider his history. Davis was a starting pitcher for the Rays early in his career but was shifted to the bullpen at least in part to preserve a delicate elbow. He spent time last summer on the DL with a flexor strain in his pitching arm, which has been a precursor to Tommy John surgery for other pitchers in the past.

The Cubs had four pitchers in the bullpen, but Jake Arrieta had started the day before (throwing 90 pitches) and Jon Lester had pitched in relief behind Arrieta (throwing 55 pitches). That left John Lackey and Justin Wilson.

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Wilson is a left-handed reliever who had a 3.41 ERA during the regular season while pitching for the Tigers and Cubs, but he was better with the Tigers (2.68 ERA) than with the Cubs (5.09 ERA). It should be noted that Wilson’s FIP with the Tigers (3.23) and Cubs (3.72) wasn’t that different, but his walk rate was more than double as a Cub. After walking 16 batters in 40.3 innings with the Tigers, Wilson walked 19 batters in 17.7 innings with the Cubs.

As you’d expect, Maddon seems to have lost confidence in Wilson. He’s watched Wilson struggle in the two months he’s been with the team, so he would have reservations about bringing Wilson into an elimination game. The only game he appeared in was Game 4, when he got two outs in the ninth inning of a 5-0 loss. Wilson might as well have had a sticker across his chest saying, “Use only in case of emergency.”

Lackey also appears to be the forgotten man. He didn’t pitch at all in the NLDS and hasn’t pitched in a game since October 1. In his 15-year career, he’s only pitched in relief twice. The first time was in 2004 and the second time was in the last game of this season just to get some work in before the playoffs began.

So it looks like it was Wade Davis or bust. With a rally brewing, Adam Lind was sent up to pinch-hit. Davis was on the ropes. Then Lind grounded into a double play, which was huge for the Cubs. The Nationals weren’t done, though. Michael A. Taylor singled to center to make it a 9-8 game and Jose Lobaton singled to put runners on first-and-second with two down.

Then came the controversial pick-off play by catcher Willson Contreras to first baseman Anthony Rizzo. By the letter of the law, it may be true that Lobaton’s foot came off the bag for a split second while the first baseman’s tag was on him, but it’s arguable whether the replay clearly showed that. Perhaps they had a better angle in New York.

Still, it’s a tough way to end a rally. This was the bottom of the eighth inning of a 9-8 game with two outs, two runners on, and the Nationals’ leadoff batter at the plate. To have the inning end on that call is not what most baseball fans want (Cubs fans excluded, perhaps).

Davis was back on the mound for the bottom of the ninth. He’d thrown 28 pitches. It’s fair to wonder how long he would go if he ran into trouble. Was Maddon willing to let him throw 40 pitches? Fifty pitches? Sixty pitches?

At this point, I got a call from a friend who was also watching the game. He wanted to know what Davis’ contract status was. I looked it up. He’s a free agent after this season. My friend said, “So Maddon is fine abusing his arm, like he did with Aroldis Chapman last year?”

Chapman, you may recall, was leaned on heavily in the World Series last year. He threw 42 pitches in Game 5, then had one day of rest and came back to throw 20 pitches in Game 6, even though the Cubs led by five runs when he came into the game. In Game 7, on no days rest, Chapman came into the game in the eighth and allowed Cleveland to tie it, then came back out for the ninth. He threw 35 pitches in the game. In the final three games of the series, across four days, Chapman threw 97 pitches.

Chapman was a free agent and signed with the Yankees in the offseason. Davis is a free agent after this season. The Cubs don’t have a financial incentive to preserve Davis’ arm. They can push him to the limit to win games this postseason, then let whatever abuse his arm endures be the problem of the next team to sign him.

It’s fair to wonder, though, does a major league manager have any responsibility to protect a pitcher even in a must-win game? At what point does Maddon consider taking out Davis to preserve the pitcher’s arm? Davis is an adult. He’s being paid $10 million this season to close out games for the Cubs. That’s his job. If the manager tells him to pitch, he pitches.

Also, given the culture of baseball, Davis has no choice but to pitch. He can’t ask out of that game if he feels a twinge in his elbow. He can’t refuse to pitch because it might cost him money on his next contract. Not that he would consider doing that. I’m sure he wanted to close out that game, but even if he did have concerns about the number of pitches he was throwing, he was in that game until Maddon removes him.

Next: Mariners season review, offseason preview

Davis got Trea Turner to fly to center on a 3-2 count, throwing six pitches. He struck out Jayson Werth on five pitches. The count went to 3-2 on Bryce Harper and Davis got him on a swinging strikeout to end the game on the 44th pitch he threw. It was a gutsy performance by a great closer and he should be commended, but you have to wonder about the long-term consequences.